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CONSPIRACY THEORY AND CONSUMER PRACTICE:
COLLECTING AND THE PARALYSIS OF INTERPRETATION INT AMERICAN
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
I begin with a word of thanks to my teachers and mentors. Phillip Wegner, Ed
White, and Mark Fenster have given me unwarranted support for this proj ect, and they
have offered much in the way of constructive criticism for where this proj ect can go from
here. I also thank Susan Hegeman and David Leverenz of the University of Florida and
Kevin Asman, Rebecca Resinski, and Alex Vernon of Hendrix College, whose work and
pedagogy have influenced me throughout my undergraduate and master's training. My
debt to each of these mentors is incalculable, and I give them the highest praise I could
apply to any teacher or colleague: their passions and ideas continue to inspire me as I
move through different stages of my education.
I must also thank my friends and colleagues who have helped shape this proj ect.
Principally, I express my gratitude for Joel Winkelman, who first taught me that the word
"consume" is best used as an intransitive, for Evan Rogers, who is still trying to convince
me that the moon landing was a hoax designed to intimidate the Soviets, and for Nicole
LaRose and Michael Vastola, who have slowly converted me from the seductive dark arts
of poststructuralism to the moral high ground of materialism. Finally, I owe my deepest
thanks to Courtney Eason, who calmed me when the weight of these ideas wore me
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENT S ............. ...... .............. iii...
LI ST OF FIGURE S .............. ...............v.....
AB STRAC T ................ .............. vi
1 INTRODUCTION ................. ...............1.......... ......
Notes ................. ...............3.................
2 ON FORM .............. ...............4.....
Notes ................. ...............7.................
3 CONSUMPTION .............. ...............8.....
Notes ................. ...............17.................
4 PRODUC TION ................. ...............19........... ....
Notes ................. ...............21.................
5 MINING CONSPIRACY IN SILVER CITY: A CASE STUDY IN LYRICAL
TRUTH AND THE PARALYSIS OF INTERPRETATION ................. ................. 22
6 CONCLUSION: TOWARD A POSITIVE CRITIQUE IN (CONSPIRACY)
THEORY ................. ...............3 8..............
N otes ................ ...............41......... ......
LIST OF REFERENCES ........_................. ........_._ .........4
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH .............. ...............45....
LIST OF FIGURES
1 Detail of George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stevens ca. 1979-90, 5th
version ............... ................. 17........ .....
2 Danny O'Brien ruminates on the early stages of his cognitive mapping. ................28
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
CONSPIRACY THEORY AND CONSUMER PRACTICE:
COLLECTING AND THE PARALYSIS OF INTERPRETATION INT AMERICAN
Chair: Phillip E. Wegner
Major Department: English
The ubiquity of the conspiratorial worldview is nowhere more evident than in
American fi1m. Such fi1ms have helped the viewing public conceive of totality in the
past, as in a spate of conspiratorial films that flourished after the Watergate scandal, and
indeed they serve a similar function today, facilitating American filmgoers' cognitive
mapping of the social totality after 9/1 1.
But though conspiracy theory nobly creates a space for this exercise in cognitive
mapping, it also reinforces the market ideology of consumption. It does so by positing
itself, the practice of conspiracy theorizing, as a consumer exercise that is to be
habitualized. The problem with its relationship to consumption is that conspiracy theory,
while often ostensibly challenging the status quo, tends through its formal attributes to
cultivate a habit of negative critique and foster a behavior of complacent consumption
that sustains the market paradigms of consumerism. This problem is not a moral one
about complicity in the system of commodity consumerism, but it is a pragmatic crisis,
because this process of consumption risks sinking conspiracy theory into a cycle of
deferral that I am calling the paralysis of interpretation.
John Sayles's Silver City (2004) exemplifies the conspiracy theorist's predicament.
Its protagonist, Danny O'Brien, must engage in a process in which he collects
information for his conspiratorial investigation, but his collecting defers any meaningful
action throughout the film, leaving the conspirers untouched. Though O'Brien's
conspiracy theorizing fails in its drive toward public exposure of the conspiracy, we can
learn from his methodology of lyrical truth, which allows him to persist in his
conspiratorial stance even when his collecting efforts encounter an information impasse.
Ultimately, this paralysis of interpretation is not just a problem for conspiracy
theorists, but for critical theorists, as well. Practitioners of both fields need to recognize
that the knowledge created by their theorizations is not enough to bring about social
transformation. Instead, these theorists must recognize that the truly radical proj ect is
one that synthesizes knowledge with an action that has the potential to bring about
change. This synthesis is the necessary next step for conspiracy theory if conspiracy
theorizing will ever pose a significant challenge to the conspiracy that is contemporary
If its prevalence were ever in doubt, conspiracy theory has reasserted itself in recent
years as the standby means for Americans to structure the world around them. The
rhetoric of conspiracy has pervaded explanations of President George W. Bush' s
elections in 2000 and 2004, the shadowy plots leading up to September 1Iti', and the
United States' path to war in Iraq. But politics aside, the ubiquity of the conspiratorial
worldview is nowhere more evident than in American film. As Richard Hofstadter
famously attests, conspiracy theorizing reaches far back into American history, and more
recent scholarship has focused on the preponderance of conspiratorial themes in
contemporary film. In the opening chapter of The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and
Space in the World System, Fredric Jameson catalogues and critiques the conspiratorial
films of the 1970s and early 1980s, surveying Alan J. Pakula's The ParallaxPPP~~~~PPP~~~PPP View (1974),
All the President 's 2en (1976), and David Cronenberg' s Videodronse (1983). This spate
of overtly conspiracy-themed films can easily be attributed to the fallout from Watergate
and to renewed efforts to discern, perhaps even redefine, the relationships between the
individual and the social in light of Nixon's cover-up.
The post 9/11 milieu hosts a similar resurgence in conspiratorial films, ranging
from trenchant documentaries to formulaic movies to richly complicated films. Several
of the documentaries-Michael Moore' s FahFFFFFFFF~~~~~~~~~renhi 9 11 (2004) and Jeremy Earp's and
Sut Jalley' s Hijacking Catastrophe: 9 11, Fear, and the Selling ofAnzerican Empire
(2004), for example--deal explicitly with the putative conspiracies surrounding 9/11, but
many other documentaries and films incorporate conspiratorial narratives that ostensibly
avoid the subject matter and trauma of the 9/11 attacks.l The post 9/11 surge in
conspiratorial films is undeniable, and at a base level it can be explained by the need for
the individual to understand his relation to what may seem like a new, more threatening
kind of totality. Jameson calls this method of situating the individual within the social
the process of cognitive mapping, and the impulse to provide this kind of social mapping
radiates throughout the conspiratorial thematics of many post 9/11 fi1ms.
Critics of the conspiracy theory genre have justly considered conspiratorial
literatures in terms of fantasy, agency, social totality, and political efficacy. Hofstadter
marginalizes conspiracy theory and theorists by accusing them of making a "leap into
fantasy," which he explains is "the curious leap in imagination that is always made at
some critical point in the recital of events" (37). Timothy Melley characterizes the
literary impulse to portray conspiratorial narratives as representations of "agency panic,"
which he describes as "an intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy, the
conviction that one's actions are being controlled by someone else or that one has been
'constructed' by powerful, external agents" (vii). Other scholars have seen conspiracy
theory in a more positive, constructive light. Jameson argues that conspiratorial texts
"constitute an unconscious, collective effort at trying to Eigure out where we are and what
landscapes and forces confront us in a late twentieth century whose abominations are
heightened by their concealment and their bureaucratic impersonality" (Geopolitical
Aesthetic 3). Mark Fenster suggests that conspiracy theories carry a democratizing
potential that he explains as "a utopian desire to understand and confront the
contradictions and conflicts of contemporary capitalism" (1 16).
To this conversation I will add another dimension to the theorizing of conspiracy
theory by arguing that it reinforces the market ideology of consumption. It does so by
positing itself, the practice of conspiracy theorizing, as a consumer exercise that is to be
habitualized. With references to contemporary American films and other literatures, I
will map out these critiques of the conspiracy theory genre, and I will explore how
conspiracy theories, while often ostensibly challenging the status quo, tend through their
formal attributes to cultivate a habit of negative critique and foster a behavior of
complacent consumption that sustains the market paradigms of consumerism.
Ultimately, my argument is not a moral one that decries conspiracy theory for its
relationship to commodity consumerism. Instead, my critique is pragmatic, outlining the
process through which conspiracy theory risks sinking into a cycle of deferral that I am
calling the paralysis of interpretation.
SThe list of post 9/11 conspiratorial literatures is indeed extensive, but a quick survey
will help highlight their ubiquity. Conspiratorial documentaries include Mark Achbar's
The Corporation (2004), Robert Greenwald's Outfoxed: Rupert2~urdoch 's War on
Journalism (2004), and Sam Green's and Bill Siegel's The Weather Underground (2003).
Formulaic renderings of conspiratorial narratives include National Treasure (2004) and
The Interpreter (2005). More complicated conspiratorial plots have appeared in Jonathan
Demme' s remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004), in Christopher Nolan' s Batman
Begins (2005), and in Fernando Meirelles's The Constant Gardener (2005). Outside of
the film arena, readers have consumed Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2003) to the
point that it became a media phenomenon, and fans of the novel await Ron Howard' s
film rendering, scheduled for release in spring of 2006.
Any critique of a genre necessarily entails--or assumes--both a discussion of
formal attributes and a periodization. For conspiracy theory, such a discussion is
particularly vexed, in part because the nature of its content and form crosses so many of
the traditional features of realism, modernism, and postmodernism. The practice of
conspiracy theorizing, though it is found in Mason-scares in the American eighteenth
century and is a theoretical concern for Marx, has been considered by many to be a
symptom of postmodernity, perhaps even its quintessence. The faithfulness with which
Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and others have represented conspiratorial thinking
throughout their careers bolsters the positions of those who would root conspiracy theory
firmly in the postmodern camp.
But conspiracy theorizing signals much more than postmodern paranoia. In his
book Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, Mark Fenster
argues against such a position, writing that "the conspiracy narrative needs to be
recognized for what it is: a utopian desire to understand and confront the contradictions
and conflicts of contemporary capitalism" (116). Fenster' s argument here is that
conspiratorial narratives aim to discover and represent something like a grand narrative.
Similarly, Jameson, outlining his theory of cognitive mapping, writes that conspiracy
theory is "a degraded figure of the total logic of late capital, a desperate attempt to
represent the latter' s system" ("Cognitive Mapping" 286). Both Fenster and Jameson
identify the key motive behind conspiratorial literature: the exposure of totality and the
construction of a grand narrative that awaits interpretation.
Thinking of conspiracy theory in terms of its insistence on a grand narrative thus
seems to link it to modernism. Jameson grants that postmodernism accommodates an
array of cultural productions, some of which may be residual impulses of modernism.l
Conspiratorial literature allows us to see just such an interpenetration of these periods: a
singular conspiracy theory, in its persistent assertions of a grand narrative, reflects a
modernist impulse; a proliferation of conspiracy theories, or perhaps associated theories,
make information increasingly harder to interpret.
Most scholars relegate periodizing discussions such as these to the content of
conspiracy theory, thus confining the field of terms to modernism and postmodernism;
what remains, however, is to investigate the periodization of the form taken by
conspiratorial narratives. Carl Freedman, studying paranoia in the novels of Philip K.
Dick, writes that "the great maj ority of [science fiction] inherits certain basic formal
properties from the realist, as distinct from the modernist or post-modernist, novel: the
typical SF text has a smoothly diachronic narrative line and offers its characters as
mimetic representations of human beings" (20). This distinction between form and
content is crucial to a discussion of narrative strategies in conspiratorial literature because
it forces us to recognize that, no matter how uniquely conspiracy theory situates its
content in the border spaces of modernism and postmodernism, its narrative form places
it within the familiar terrain of realism. Even in the ubiquitous episodes of 7Jhe X-Files
where conspiratorial thematics meet purely fantasy subj ect matter--for example, the
nationwide cover-up of decades' worth of encounters with extraterrestrial s-the realist
narrative formulation does not lapse into postmodern self-reflection.
Linda Hutcheon, in her classic study The Politics ofPostmodernism, explains the
politics behind realist narratives: "representation that presumes the transparency of the
medium and thus the direct and natural link between sign and referent or between word
and world" (32). In other words, realism attempts to figure totality indisputably and
seamlessly. The political exigencies of a conspiracy theory require just such a
"transparency of the medium" in order for any particular narrative to present itself-no
matter how illogical or fantastical it may be in extreme cases--and its evidence in a
manner accessible to a large public. Jameson touches on the need for this transparency
when he writes, "On the global scale, allegory allows the most random, minute, or
isolated landscapes to function as a figurative machinery in which questions about the
system and its control over the local ceaselessly rise and fall" (TGA 5). Accordingly,
allegory offers a transparent, word-to-world realist narrative mechanism for providing a
cognitive mapping' s representation of totality. If a conspiracy theory aspires to political
utility, it cannot afford to indulge itself in fractured, overly complex narrative forms
typical of high modernism or even literary postmodernism. Only with a realist narrative
framework--and this is especially the case in film, which affects mimesis through its
very representations of humans--can conspiracy theory aspire to relevance in the cultural
The employment of word-to-world narrative strategies in conspiratorial literature
also reflects a more orthodox historical periodization regarding the post 9/11 climate. If
the events of 9/1 1 and the concomitant international actions have in fact spurred the
recent wave of conspiratorial films, one might associate those events with a need to
respond to real, felt crises with literature that aspires to represent that totality. In other
words, the all-too-real bloodshed in the U.S., Afghanistan, and Iraq--not to mention in
innumerable 9/11-related skirmishes elsewhere--have demanded a shift from postmodern
narratives to realist ones that can more effectively deliver representations of cognitive
mapping. These cognitive mappings, especially in the hazy relations of globalization, are
central to grasping domestic and international power relations, and conspiratorial
literature is one avenue for circulating such mappings. As we will see, however, this
penchant for mapping demands that the conspiracy theorist engage in the collection of
information, a process that ultimately risks deferring any real of action.
1 In his foreword to Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition, Jameson refutes Lyotard's
denial of grand narratives in postmodernism, choosing instead "to posit, not the
disappearance of the great master-narratives, but their passage underground, as it were,
their continuing but now unconscious effectivity as a way of 'thinking about' and acting
in our current situation" (xii). Jameson projects this line of thought onto Lyotard's own
writing when he suggests that Lyotard "has characterized postmodernism, not as that
which follows modernism and its particular legitimation crisis, but rather as a cyclical
moment that returns before the emergence of ever new modernisms in the stricter sense"
Don DeLillo characterizes the practice of conspiracy theory as an exercise in
dietrologia, a word that combines the Italian "dietro," an adverb translated roughly as
"behind," with "logia," a noun pertaining to the science or study of a given subj ect. He
defines dietrologia as "the science of what is behind something. A suspicious event. The
science of what is behind an event" (DeLillo, thiderworld 280). As an enterprise
modeling itself after science, conspiracy theory has a deep kinship with the practice of
collecting--usually of data and other information relevant to the theory at hand.
This fundamental imperative to collect holds, whether we are considering the
conspiracy theorist or his audience. Walter Benj amin writes in The Arcades Project that
"what is decisive in collecting is that the obj ect is detached from all its original functions
in order to enter into the closest conceivable relation to things of the same kind" (204).
Benj amin, addressing this practice of decontextualization, adds that "this relation is the
diametric opposite of any utility, and falls into the peculiar category of completeness"
(204). This impulse to completeness reflects the conspiracy theorist' s fidelity to a
totalizing proj ect, but it often situates conspiracy theory in a consumerist position that
struggles to preserve critical distance from the totality it purports to maintain. Jameson,
in Postmodernism, demurs on this last subj ect, writing that "distance in general
(including 'critical distance' in particular) has very precisely been abolished in the new
space of postmodernism" (48). The rehabilitation of critical distance will be taken up in
the last section of this essay.
Crucial to this discussion is the connection Benj amin finds between collecting and
allegory: "in every collector hides an allegorist, and in every allegorist a collector. As
far as the collector is concerned, his collection is never complete; for let him discover just
a single piece missing, and everything he's collected remains a patchwork, which is what
things are for allegory from the beginning" (211). As we will see, the obstacles to
completeness in a conspiratorial proj ect pose a significant challenge to the political
efficacy of its practice. Still, the pairing of collector and allegorist highlights the realist,
word-to-world exigencies of conspiracy theory: what the conspiratorial collector gathers
bears significance in that the "patchwork" assembled from his collection performs the
service of cognitive mapping, thereby conveying a representation of relations on the
For the conspiracy theorist, the practice of collecting takes as its primary obj ect
information. Evan Watkins, in Everyda~y Exchanges, writes that conspiracy theorizing "is
invariably represented as trafficking in the currency of information" (100). The
conspiratorial collector--whether an author of conspiratorial literature, a character in
conspiracy fiction, or a political practitioner of conspiracy theory--must research
disparate sources and synthesize that information into a coherent, often realist, narrative.l
This thorough research can bolster a non-Hictional, historical conspiracy theory's political
impact and heighten the mimetic qualities of a literary work of conspiracy.
But the repetition of the collecting behavior, if taken to an extreme, risks a
continual deferral of conclusion or closure. What' s worse, of course, is that this deferral
of closure for the collection cycle negates the conspiracy theory's potential for political
influence. Such a deferral of closure is precisely what Benj amin introduces when he
explains that a collector cannot complete his collection and instead can only aspire to a
"patchwork." Take for example this description of Nicholas Branch, the historian whose
job it is to compile a secret history of the Kennedy assassination for the CIA in Don
DeLillo's Libra: "Branch must study everything. He is in too deep to be selective. ..
The truth is he hasn't written all that much. He has extensive and overlapping notes--
notes in three-foot drifts, all these years of notes. But of actual finished prose, there is
precious little. It is impossible to stop assembling data" (59). Branch's efforts at
mapping the Kennedy assassination fail because he can only assemble a "patchwork" of
evidence, testimonies, and conj ectures. Without closure for his account of the plot
against the president, Branch cannot offer a compelling, conclusive, complete conspiracy
theory that would prompt a response from the government or offer a sense of resolution
to the American public. This inability to bring closure to the conspiratorial narrative is
what I'm calling "the paralysis of interpretation."
The result of this collecting of information, if it is successfully completed or if it
only holds information in place while the conspiracy theorist investigates, often takes the
organizational form of a map--either narratological or traditionally visual in nature.
Jameson hails the activity of mapping--which he distinguishes from the production of
maps--as a method of organizing information into a coherent, if reductive, representation
of social relations, and he suggests that this representation take the form of allegory, as
noted above. In film, scenes in which a character draws up such a map are crucial for
recognizing the piecing together of a conspiratorial plot, and while a map is merely a
representation of the more ambitious process of mapping, it offers the promise of
engagement with the social. We can find examples of these visual mapping efforts in the
striking creations of the artist Mark Lombardi. Curator Robert Hobbs, whose essays
introduce and accompany Lombardi's artwork in the volume Mark Lombard'i: Global
Networks, explains the artist's method of "narrative structures":
[Lombardi's] drawings are particularly timely now, since he usually created visual
narratives that expose the worldwide interconnections among corporations, political
structures, and ad hoc hierarchies that continue to be serious problems today. ..
To convey this, Lombardi created subtle traceries of information pertaining to
global financial deals and offshore banking that often resemble spider webs or
portions of them. (19)
Each delicately simple pencil-on-paper drawing in the Global Networks exhibition
organizes names, corporations, institutions, and events via "traceries" that signal
interrelationships. The subjects ofLombardi's mappings span financial networks of
international businessmen, government scandals such as the Iran-Contra fiasco, and the
corrupt connections of prominent politicians.2 Often these representations turn to
subj ects of conspiracy, as in BNL, Reagan, Bush, & Thatcher and' the Arming oflraq, ca.
1983-91, which ties the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro to the American and British leaders
in a conspiracy to provide weapons to Iraq (Lombardi 87-91). At the most fundamental
level, we can view Lombardi's mapping art as an attempt to organize this collected
information into a politically expedient representation of a matrix of power, one that
realizes the completeness of its collector' s vision.
But not all conspiracy theorists piece together their collected information as
coherently as Mark Lombardi does with his concise mappings. Instead, many conspiracy
theorists leave their collected findings in "patchwork" form, in disarray with loose ends
untied and conclusions forestalled. Indeed, unmappable relations, or at least the
conspiracy theorist' s inability to map those relations coherently, are very often the
starting point for works of conspiratorial literature. For example, in Jonathan Demme's
remake of 7Jhe Manchurian Can2didate (2004), Maj or Ben Marco (Denzel Washington)
uncovers a cache of incoherently related information in the hotel room of Corporal Al
Melvin (Jeffrey Wright). Melvin's information-sketches of images from recovered
memories, newspaper clippings, photographs, and scrawled inscriptions--sprawl s across
his walls and the pages of his j journal with no discernable organization to help Marco
comprehend its underlying narrative.
Melvin and Marco have undergone the same brainwashing scheme, courtesy of the
Manchurian Global corporation, and Marco struggles to piece together those events as
they have recurred to him in dreams and flashes of recovered memory and in the images
from Melvin' s walls and j ournals. Melvin' s failed attempt at mapping the conspiracy,
though later redeemed by Marco's detective work, marks a fundamental necessity for the
political impact of a conspiracy theory: representational organization of the collected
materials. Marco's outline of the Manchurian conspiracy leaves no room for the fluidity
of totality that Jameson advocates, but it does offer enough completeness for the
appropriate agencies to disrupt the corporation's plot for the White House. Still, Marco's
work fundamentally fails to register totality: the localized malfeasance of Manchurian
Global is eliminated, but there is no mention of systemic reform--much less anything
approaching systemic transformation--at the conclusion of the film. Marco's project
bears out Jameson's assertion that conspiracy theory is a "degraded" form of cognitive
mapping, because it privileges local ethics over totalizing politics and offers a reductive
resolution to the systemic crisis for which Manchurian Global is but one example.
Once a representational organization is in place, the general audience of
conspiratorial literature--and this always includes the conspiracy theorists themselves--
also engages in a practice of collecting. The audience' s collecting, instead of focusing on
specific bits of information, focuses on the conspiratorial narrative itself, and for this
reason it very closely resembles traditional processes of commodity consumption.
Indeed, Clare Birchall, in "The Commodification of Conspiracy Theory," argues that, as
recent films have adopted the term "conspiracy" into their very titles, the notion of
conspiracy theory "starts to signify a marketable category rather than a subterranean
activity" (235). When conspiracy theory is fetishized to the point of becoming a standard
commercial product, it not only risks its potential for critical distance, but it also enters
into the field of rote consumption. Two issues are at play here. First, as we have
established, the formal logic of conspiracy theory resembles consumerism because of its
process of collecting, which risks enervating its ability to organize action. Second,
conspiracy theory has become an easily marketable product, which impairs its critical
distance. The issue of marketability doesn't necessarily strip conspiracy theory of its
"subterranean" foundation, but if it leads broader audiences into the cycle of collecting,
this marketability increases the risk that action will be deferred.
The repeated consumption of conspiracy theories, while offering the promise of
agitating the viewing public into action, all too often reinforces the habitualization of the
market ideology of consumerism. The viewer of conspiratorial film collects the assorted
narratives, and, to return to Benjamin's terms, decontextualizes those narratives into a
"completeness" of paranoid likeness. By this process, films on disparate subjects--take
for example Jon Turteltaub's National Trea~sure (2004) and Sydney Pollack' s The
Interpreter (2005)--enter into a likeness that has nothing to do with their content, but
that instead hinges on their shared conspiratorial sense. The conspiracies in these two
fi1ms share nothing in their content, but viewers could associate them in a bond of
paranoid likeness. The collector' s act of decontextualization has the effect of de-
politicizing each narrative into an iteration of paranoia, and the specific allegations and
information illustrated along the way disappear under the larger mantle of mere paranoia.
Timothy Melley, in Empire of Conspiracy, explores the consumerist attributes of
conspiracy theory in terms of addiction. In a reading of William S. Burroughs' Naked
Lunch, Melley observes that several of the characters are "control addicts," and he
explains that "the more radical idea of an addiction to control itself liquidates the concept
of control altogether" (165). Conspirators lose agency to their addiction to power, and it
follows that conspiracy theorists and their audiences lose agency both to power-hungry
cabals of conspirators and to their own consumerist addictions. The narrative of the
individual addicted to exposing a conspiracy is common enough-Warren Beatty's
Joseph Frady in The ParallaxPPP~~~~PPP~~~PPP View and Denzel Washington's Ben Marco in The
Manchurian Can2didate both exemplify the lone conspiracy theorist's near-deranged
Eixation on uncovering and publicizing the conspiracy plot. What is less commonly
recognized is that the methodical consumption of these narratives marks a similar
fixation--here a Eixation on repetitious consumption--on the part of theater-going
audiences or the reading public.
In many ways, conspiracy theory becomes fetishized because it so readily lends
itself to an abundance of interpretations, and even this proliferation of interpretation
marks a consumerist impulse. Mark Fenster explains that "conspiracy theory demands
continual interpretation in which there is always something more to know about an
alleged conspiracy, the evidence of which is subj ected to an investigative machine that
depends on the perpetual motion of signifieation" (77-78). Of course, such an
interminable process of interpretation indefinitely suspends even a provisional conclusion
or closure--again, Benj amin' s problematic of the collector' s "patchwork"-for the
conspiratorial narrative, as the conspiracy theorist continuously pursues more information
to strengthen his allegations.
We can observe one example of this phenomenon as the paralysis of interpretation
entraps Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide .1/////(1999).
Concerned that his trespass into a hedonistic masquerade ball may have resulted in the
death of a young woman--was she killed in a perverse sacrifice, or did she really die
from a drug overdose as the newspapers reported?-Harford investigates the cult-like
group of debauchees, tries to ascertain the young woman's identity, and questions his
friends for whatever information they have regarding the nameless, faceless, Tristero-like
sex organization. But the result of Harford's detective work, despite its thoroughness,
disappoints; after returning from interviewing his last informant, he promises to his wife
"I'll tell you everything. I'll tell you everything." Harford, unable to compile enough
information to break the cycle of interpretation, leaves the circumstances of the young
woman's death forever veiled in mystery. Not only does the camera pull away from his
explanation to his wife, but Harford takes no public action against what might be a
The paralysis of interpretation threatens to render conspiracy theorists trapped in a
never-ending process of consumption, and in still other ways the conspiracy theorist' s
interpretation complements consumer society. Rem Koolhaas, studying Salvador Dali's
"Paranoid-Critical Method," observes that this brand of conspiracy theorizing "promises
that, through conceptual recycling, the worn, consumed contents of the world can be
recharged or enriched like uranium, and that ever-new generations of false facts and
fabricated evidences can be generated simply through the act of interpretation" (203).
This process of "conceptual recycling" complicates the act of collecting that is inherent to
the conspiracy theorist's behavior. Through the decontextualization of information, the
conspiracy theorist creates a new product that, as Birchall reminds us, is ready for sale on
the market. Conspiracy theory, close kin if not synonym for "Paranoid-Critical Method,"
repackages old information into a shiny, sexy new narrative, and this market-oriented
recycling further strengthens the symbiotic relationship between conspiracy theory and
consumer society. However, the Paranoid-Critical Method, in addition to its
consumption-oriented "conceptual recycling," creates opportunities for a productive
radical critique, which we will explore later.
My study of this symbiotic relationship has, so far, characterized conspiracy theory
as a critical gesture toward totality that enervates its own critical distance by reproducing
consumer behaviors. Marx, detailing the consumption of material and labor in
Grundrisse, writes that "the whole process therefore appears as productive consumption,
i.e. as consumption which terminates neither in a void, nor in the mere subj ectification of
the objective, but which is, rather, again posited as an object" (300-01). "Productive
consumption" precisely explains the logic of conspiracy theory, which rarely offers
enough completeness or conclusion to terminate its cycle of interpretation and thereby
posits itself as its own obj ect, as a practice to be repeated and even habitualized. This
critique, however, does not engage an alternate meaning of "productive"--the one
pertaining to utility. Benj amin' s conspirator focuses on completeness to the point of
neglecting utility altogether, but a renewed concentration on utility, which is so closely
related to action, perhaps offers the best method for all conspiracy theory--whether
located in film, fiction, political rhetoric, or smoky back alleys--to reclaim its critical
distance and trade in its position of negative critique for a positive one.
1 Patrick O'Donnell describes the process of collection as indicative of the "overvoice,"
which he explains as representing the "collation of coincidental tic and expression into
communal grammar" (187). O'Donnell finds the overvoice in Mailer' s 7Jhe
Executioner 's Song, writing that it signals "the insertion of Mailer' s intention--more
pointedly, his paranoid authorial presence--into events that otherwise would appear to be
random" (187). The overvoice designates a useful term for considering how authors of
conspiratorial literature and historical conspiracy theories organize their collected
information into a coherent narrative. The form of the overvoice can vary, but the
presence of some kind of organization is crucial to the viability of a conspiracy.
Figure 1. Detail of George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stevens ca. 1979-90,
5" version. Photo courtesy of The Quarterly WilliamnsburgArt Review
(http ://www.wburg.com/0202/arts/lombardi .html).
2 Figure 1 is a sample of Lombardi's work. Hobbs explains that George W. Bush,
Harken Energy, and Jackson Stephens, ca. 1979-90 (24 '/8x 48 1/4 in.) "fOcuses on the
roles that cronyism and insider trading played in the fortunes of George W. Bush in the
1980s, before he became governor of Texas" (Lombardi 99). This representation of
networked relationships is typical of Lombardi's method of conveying the information he
has collected. Often the arrangement of these collections implies conspiracy, as in this
piece that links together domestic corporations and foreign politics to suggest a concerted
effort to sustain George W. Bush's financial interests.
Here I want to offer some brief remarks on this flip-side of conspiracy theory--its
qualities of production--before moving to a reading. Many cultural studies scholars tend
to view conspiracy theory's productive traits negatively, or at best receive them
hesitantly. Indeed, such scholarship mirrors the reservations that marginalize conspiracy
theory and theorists in contemporary culture. Such scholarship and attitudes focus on the
production of fantasy in conspiracy theory--which, to be sure, is a risk latent in any
effort to map out secretive, perhaps even undecidable, relations--instead of considering
its productive potential.
As noted in my introduction, Richard Hofstadter maintains that the paranoid style is
characterized by a "leap into fantasy." For Hofstadter, the term "conspiracy theorist" is
derogatory because, he maintains, "the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes
than good" (5). Given his insistence that conspiracy theories necessarily draw fictive
conclusions from a body of fact, this conclusion seems reasonable. But Hofstadter,
writing before Watergate actualized so many fears about secrecy and corruption, wrongly
dismisses conspiracy theory as completely marginal and irrelevant to the mainstream's
concerns. Evan Watkins echoes Hofstadter' s apprehension, though less stridently, when
he writes that conspiracy theories have the unfortunate tendency of mistaking motive for
general effect, thus propagating unfounded conclusions.l Perhaps more importantly,
Hofstadter' s approach characterizes the dominant rhetoric regarding conspiracy
throughout popular culture, marginalizing conspiracy theorists by aligning them with X-
Following Hofstadter, Koolhaas' s analysis of the Paranoid-Critical Method (PCM)
also seems to align conspiratorial thinking with the production of irreality. However, for
Koolhaas such an irreality is constructive. He describes this method as a "delirium of
interpretation": "Each fact, event, force, observation is caught in one system of
speculation and 'understood' by the afflicted individual in such a way that it absolutely
confirms and reinforces his thesis--that is, the initial delusion which is his point of
departure. The paranoiac always hits the nail on the head', no matter where the hammer
blows fall" (Koolhaas 201). Koolhaas continues to explain that the PCM has two steps:
first, it concocts a grandiose paranoid theory; and second, it manipulates the facts until
they support one's position (202). This process inverts the sequence of thoughts in
Hofstadter' s "leap into fantasy," and on the surface it seems to confirm Hofstadter's
assertion that conspiracy theory demands an underlying manufacture of an irreal,
logically untenable belief. But for Koolhaas this "delirium of interpretation" is a crucial
method of reinforcing one's consciousness of power and social relations.
Mark Fenster, more sympathetic to the aims of conspiracy theory than Hofstadter,
explains conspiracy theory and production in terms of desire. He writes that "conspiracy
theory is a practice of desire that moves "~\` (Fenster 95). The movement of this desire,
Fenster asserts, produces "not only a circular, seemingly endless desire and proliferation
of conspiracy-related texts, but also affective intensities and flows, self-generating and
forever flying through space and time" (95). The benefit of such a desire-production,
though it may seem irrevocably self-reflexive and "circular," is that it holds a utopian
promise: the manufacture of conspiratorial literature becomes the means to an end--and
for Fenster the end is the democratization of power relations--which can benefit a whole
society. Unlike Hofstadter' s denunciations of conspiracy theory as a production of
fantasy, Fenster' s focus on desire redirects that production to the field of productivity.
That Fenster, Koolhaas, and Watkins are in the minority of scholars who view
conspiracy theory and theorizing as having the potential for a radical, even utopian
impact reflects the ubiquity of scholarship that engages in negative critique. Indeed, my
own scrutiny of the symbiosis between conspiracy theory and consumer society strikes
the fashionable pose of the academic who asserts his primacy by emphasizing the failure
of this or that theory, cultural practice, or artwork. What remains, then, is to restore to
conspiracy theory the productive potential which Fenster, Koolhaas, and Watkins hint.
SIn a passage examining claims that capital is a "motivated system" that conspires
against the proletariat and Marx's insistence on observing capitalism as a complicated
system of social relations, Watkins writes that "conspiracy theories short-circuit this
complex structural analysis by immediately assigning to capitalist owners the motivation
of exploiting workers rather than of accumulating capital" (115).
MINING CONSPIRACY INT SILVER CITY: A CASE STUDY INT LYRICAL TRUTH
AND THE PARALYSIS OF INTERPRETATION
When gubernatorial candidate Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper) casts into Lake
Arapahoe for one of his TV spots on the environment, he never expected that he would
reel in a dead body. Nor would he have imagined that the circumstances surrounding the
body's unceremonious dumping would implicate one of his largest campaign contributors
in a migrant labor scandal. But this purely contingent event draws together the two
figures--the candidate and the body of Lazaro Huerta-and creates a space for one
enterprising detective, the former investigative reporter Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston),
to begin to conceive of the shady links between Pilager and his corrupting financier, Wes
Benteen (Kris Kristofferson). From here, Danny employs his reporter-detective skills to
wax conspiratorial about the relationship between the Pilager family and Benteen, along
the way illustrating the trademark characteristics that I have outlined for the conspiracy
theorist: collecting information, striving toward a cognitive mapping of totality, and
ultimately struggling with the paralysis of interpretation.
Ostensibly, John Sayles's Silver City (2004) takes its polemical aim at President
George W. Bush. Trailers for the film highlight Cooper' s performance of the clueless,
ineloquent gubernatorial candidate, setting the film up as an extensive satire of the
president who was running for re-election during the film's release. In this respect,
Cooper' s performance does not disappoint. In an impromptu press conference, Pilager
speaks about his campaign agenda:
I'm not raising taxes. We can't just keep throwing the taxpayers' hard-earned
money at these perceived--you know, some of them, I admit, are real--so-called
social problems. We have to get our priorities straight. Education is a priority.
Health care is a priority. Uh, our economy is a priority. The environmental--the
whole environmental, uh, arena--that's a priority, big priority. Building new roads
and maintaining the present--keeping the infrastructure in place, where it
belongs--that' s a priority.
Pilager' s lack of elocution is so painful that his own father, Senator Judson Pilager,
comments that his son is "a fucking disaster when he' s off the script." And if the
parallels to contemporary politics weren't clear, the background of one shot in the film
shows defaced posters of the younger Bush sporting horns and a trickster' s goatee.
Indeed, one of the film's crew members remarks that after observing the 2000 election
scandal in Florida while filming Sunshine State (2002), Sayles dedicated himself to
"kick[ing] George Bush's ass" (Making of).
Of course if we accept that the purpose of the film is to derail Bush' s reelection
campaign, we must surely classify it as a failure: as far as Silver City is concerned, the
president made it through 2004 with his hindquarters unharmed. But Silver City' s
inability to offer a political obstacle to the Bush campaign is mirrored in its protagonist' s
inability provide a clear link between Dickie Pilager and the money coming in from Wes
Benteen's underhanded Bentel Corporation. The anxiety over extreme corporate
lobbying power is reminiscent of the recent remake of The Manchurian Can2didate, as
Benteen has provided more than half of the funds in Pilager' s campaign war chest in the
hope that Pilager will support legislation to deregulate environmental and industrial
standards that affect the interests of the Bentel Corporation' s family of businesses--
Benteen Ranch, Benteen Realty, Benteen Medical Associates, Gold Mine
Communications, BENagra, and Bentel Stadium. This relationship is markedly less ham-
handed than Manchurian Global's efforts to control, literally and allegorically, the mind
of a presidential candidate, and accordingly Danny O'Brien's conspiracy theory cannot
aspire to the straightforwardness of Maj or Ben Marco' s clear assessment of the
relationship between corporate sponsor and puppet-politician.
The complexity of the conspiracy theory that Danny O'Brien pursues is largely due
to the challenges of contingency. Of course, "contingency" has dual meanings here. One
such meaning, adopted by Skip Willman in his formulation of "contingency theory,"
indicates marginalization. Willman's contingency theory refers to a concept of the social
that "represents a new and widespread 'strategy of containment' in the effort to dispel the
'paranoid' fears raised by conspiracy theory" (22). A negative critique of conspiracy
theory, contingency theory posits "a smoothly functioning social system subj ect to
random deviations and deformations introduced by external corrupting forces" (Willman
28-29). In Willman's sense of the word, "contingency" refers to the conspiracy theorist
becoming incidental to the real goings-on of society, and indeed Danny O'Brien's
voice--like Silver City itself-is ultimately silenced by the very mechanism of
marginalization found in Hofstadter' s outline of the paranoid style. But in another sense,
O'Brien' s first struggle is to make sense of the contingency of the film' s opening scene--
the incidental snagging of Pilager' s fishing hook on Lazaro Huerta' s corpse. The
challenge here is for O'Brien to establish that the incident is more than an aleatory gaffe
on the campaign trail and to expose the intense meaning behind the event: Pilager
himself is implicated, though unknowingly, in the cover-up of a migrant worker' s death
under dubious circumstances at the BENagra slaughterhouse.
This second challenge of contingency demands a significant degree of research
from the conspiracy theorist. And, in a plot rather unorthodox for the genre, Sayles's
conspiracy theorist starts off on the conspirator' s payroll. Pilager' s campaign advisor, the
Karl Rove-like Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss), suspects at the outset of the Hishing
incident that political foul play may be involved, confiding to a coroner, "There's also the
remote possibility that this is not a coincidence. I don't think I'm being paranoid when I
consider the possibility that one of our opponents had something to do with this." Of
course, Raven could not have foreseen that the incident is not a coincidence, that one of
his biggest allies, Benteen, was ultimately responsible for the body, and he tumns to the
help of an independent detective agency to investigate the possibility of political motives
behind Lazaro Huerta' s inconvenient resurrection. The case lands in Danny O'Brien's
lap, and he is charged with confronting three of Pilager' s political enemies--Cliff
Castleton, Casey Lyle, and his own sister Madeline Pilager (Daryl Hannah)-to let them
know that Chuck Raven has them under surveillance. But after a brief examination of
Pilager' s political connections, O'Brien shifts the focus of his investigation from
Pilager' s enemies to his shady connections to Benteen.
Here the process of collection begins in earnest, and it is no coincidence that
O'Brien is warned of the Pilager-Benteen connection by Mitch Paine (Tim Roth), a
guerrilla j oumalist whom O'Brien had befriended in his earlier days as a reporter. Paine
runs an independent media outlet that O'Brien j okingly refers to as "kill-the-rich.com,"
and he immediately senses his old friend's new aff61iations. When O'Brien seeks help
with the list of names Raven has charged him with investigating, Paine pointedly asks,
"You're working for them now, aren't you? Them that run the whole deal?" Paine is,
perhaps, the model conspiracy theorist, and after glossing on Castleton, Lyle, and
Madeline Pilager, he introduces O'Brien to his pet project: the investigation of the
Pilager family's relationship to Wes Benteen. Here O'Brien learns that Benteen had
provided cargo planes for Oliver North during Iran-Contra, that more recently he has
been bringing in large numbers illegal immigrants to fill a labor shortage during a union
strike, never once having been inspected by Immigration Services, and that he bailed out
Pilager for his investment in the Silver City Development site, which lost its value when
it was discovered to sit upon an abandoned mine that was releasing toxic heavy metals
into the water table. Paine's information takes the shape of a narrative that is geared
primarily toward impugning Pilager and Benteen. Benj amin describes the process by
which the collector inscribes meaning onto the collection: "All of these-the 'objective'
data together with the other--come together, for the true collector, in every single one of
his possessions, to form a whole magic encyclopedia, a world order, whose outline is the
fate of its object" (207). Paine' s narrative imagines the fate its obj ects-the revelation of
a corrupt relationship between government and business--and O'Brien seizes on this
narrative as the framework for his own investigation.
Paine provides O'Brien with a solid "magic encyclopedia" of the Pilager-Benteen
connection, leaving him to discern its mediation by Lazaro Huerta, and O'Brien starts
right away at the trademark work of the detective. With only a photograph of a tattoo on
Lazaro Huerta's hand and a list of possible culprits, O'Brien sets out to uncover the
man's identity and the circumstances under which his body emerged from Lake
Arapahoe, dividing his time between background work on Lazaro Huerta and confronting
Raven's three suspects. What began as an assignment to intimidate Castleton, Lyle, and
Madeline Pilager by signaling Chuck Raven' s suspicions of them has now turned into a
much more penetrating exercise in mining. As the investigation continues, O'Brien goes
deeper and deeper into Lazaro Huerta' s story--surely deeper than Raven had ever hoped
or planned--discovering Vince Esparza' s work as a coyote delivering illegal labor to
BENagra' s fields and slaughterhouses and Benteen Realty's construction sites. And as
he delves further into Raven's list of suspects--in once case literally down into the earth
following a miner' s tour given by Casey Lyle--he uncovers more of Pilager' s mercenary
rise to power, including Raven's maniacal drive to befriend and influence the Pilager
family as well as Benteen' s reckless mining of the land he leased from Pilager that led to
the contamination of the Silver City watershed. But when he reemerges from his mining
campaign, the product of O'Brien' s collecting efforts is much harder to measure and
calculate than any silver or gold, and the next step for his conspiracy theory--the
revelation of information in the service of political impact--remains a distant hope.
As we have seen in Mark Lombardi's traceries and in Corporal Al Melvin' s
sketches in The Manchurian Can2didate remake, mapping is a crucial step toward
actualizing the political potential of a conspiracy theory, and indeed cognitive mapping is
the very essence of conspiracy theory. It is important to remember that a map is only a
figure of the broader process of cognitive mapping, but without the map's fundamental
organization of the collected materials, the conspiracy theorist' s efforts have little chance
of affecting change. In Silver City, we see O'Brien drawing up such a map to think the
conspiratorial relationship revealed by Lazaro Huerta's resurrection, literally sketching
onto his living room wall the events and figures involved in the conspiracy he tries to
piece together, connecting them with arching directional arrows to designate the flow of
their relationships in a matrix that is comparable to Lombardi's drawings.
O'Brien's walls have served similar mapping functions in his earlier reporting
work, and this connect-the-dots scene illustrates his drive to discern surreptitious
relationships. The scene in O'Brien's living room takes place as he is still piecing
together his own narrative of Lazaro Huerta' s relationship to Pilager and Benteen, adding
names and directional arrows to the wall in an effort to break the veil of contingency that
enshrouds the event at Lake Arapahoe.
Figure 2. Danny O'Brien ruminates on the early stages of his cognitive mapping.
Crucially, he adds Vincent Esparza' s name to the mix and links it to Benteen' s. This
representation of the conspiracy narrative helps O'Brien, as well as the film's audience,
visualize the possible relationships that underlie Pilager' s "pro-growth," anti-
environment policies and their connections to Benteen through the very body of Lazaro
Huerta. This intense focus on the particulars of the Pilager-Benteen conspiracy theory,
while critical to its potential to thwarting Pilager's gubernatorial aspirations, validates
Jameson's assertion that conspiracy theory is a "degraded" form of cognitive mapping
because it tends to prioritize representations of localized malfeasance over those of
totality. As in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, the problem of Danny
O'Brien's cognitive mapping is really a problem of scale because it substitutes local
totality and ethics for broad totality and politics.
It' s worth noting here that while O'Brien' s mapping effort may be a "degraded"
form of cognitive mapping, the Sayles oeuvre, taken as a whole, demonstrates a fidelity
to the proj ect of mapping totality, illuminating many of the thematics that we find in
Silver City. Matewan, Sayles's 1987 film about the 1920 struggles to unionize a West
Virginia mining town, involves the exploitation of labor and the necessity of collective
action in order to protect laborers. Union organizer Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) strains
to keep the Mingo County laborers from internal discrimination--the workers' identities
as Appalachian whites, Italian immigrants, and African Americans put them in a state of
perilous discord--by constantly reminding them that "There ain't but two sides of this
world: them that work and them that don't. You work. They don't." In Lone Star, his
1996 film about a father-son pair of law officers in a Texas border town, Sayles displays
his interest in hybridity, mapping the lines between nations and cultures across spatial
and human bodies. Otis Payne, the owner of a bar, has an exhibit of the Black
Seminoles, a band of hybridized refugees who lived in the Everglades during Spain's rule
of Florida; his personal collection of the Black Seminoles' artifacts stands in as a
microcosm of the cultural and racial transfers that take place across the Mexican-
American borders throughout the film. Sunshine State, his film about commercial and
residential development in two of Florida' s coastal communities, represents the social
and environmental perils of a system that privileges the economic profits of growth over
more traditional values of continuity. In one scene, residents of the bourgeois Delrona
Beach community hold a parade that reenacts the Spanish conquest of the land they now
occupy, ironically noting the corporate sponsorship of their festival rites as if to
acknowledge the connection of two imperial powers: the Spanish and the strip mall.
These three fundamental themes--labor rights, immigrant rights, and development--
converge in Silver City to demonstrate Sayles's totalizing vision that recognizes the
themes' intimate relationships.
Regardless of its reluctance to conceive of totality, Danny O'Brien' s conspiracy
theory still faces the more immediate obstacle of the contingent nature of the Lake
Arapahoe event. In other words, his mapping efforts do not yet prove a link between
Pilager, Benteen, and Lazaro Huerta that is conclusive enough to bring Raven's campaign
machine to its knees. Through no failure in his detective's collecting skills, O'Brien has
arrived at an information impasse. Having interviewed each of Pilager's primary
enemies and heard their stories of his treacherous incompetence, and having followed
every lead on Lazaro Huerta to discover that he died in a slaughterhouse that flouted
safety regulations because its illegal laborers couldn't address their needs through
appropriate legal channels, Danny O'Brien finds himself knowing that Benteen' s
intentions for Pilager are depraved, but also knowing that he will likely never be able to
prove it. O'Brien's impotence here defies the knowledge-as-power thematic that we will
return to later in Richard Donner's Conspiracy 7lheory (1997), seemingly leaving him
with two choices: he can continue collecting, risking the paralysis of interpretation, or he
can quit the investigation altogether, ensuring that the information would never be
Sayles does, however, share with the audience a scene that provides damning
evidence of the corrupt lobbying relationship, although the scene, by its very nature,
precludes O'Brien's access. The camera pans across a sweeping mountain vista, slowly
focusing on the two men, sans entourage, riding horseback across an open field.
BENTEEN. Look at a map, they got the half the West under lock and key.
BENTEEN. Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, national parks,
the State....It' s like a treasure chest waiting to be opened, only there' s
a 500-pound bureaucrat sitting on it.
PILAGER. Well, I'm a small government man.
BENTEEN. I know. That's why we chose you, son.
Benteen continues to lecture Pilager, who tries his best to keep up, on the virtues of
privatization and designates him "one of the point men in the fight to liberate [natural]
resources." This conversation concretely indicts the wicked lobbying arrangement
between the two men. However, it is beyond O'Brien's powers of collection, leaving his
mapping efforts unrealized. Without a record of this exchange, a record akin to Nixon' s
elusive White House tapes, O'Brien's conspiratorial narrative will remain inconclusive,
unverifiable. He has to continue searching for a record of similar exchanges if his
collection is to have meaning.
However, the film's conclusion remains hopeful, as O'Brien manages a curious
negotiation of deferral here, neither persisting in the paralysis of interpretation nor
resigning his collection to the garbage dump of dead conspiracy theories. Having been
fired from the private investigation firm for digging deeper into the mines than his clients
desired, O'Brien himself has no means to continue collecting data on Pilager and
Benteen. Indeed, he tells a friend that his first order of business as an unemployed man is
"to repaint [his] living room," signaling his abandonment of the mapping project. But he
has found a way to impart his collection proj ect to others in the hope that Benteen' s
responsibility--and accordingly Pilager's shady relationship to the Bentel Corporation--
will be exposed to the public. In one of the closing scenes, we follow a staffer from
Mitch Paine' s guerrilla j ournalism outfit into the office, where she Einds an anonymous
message wedged between the door and the doorframe. Over her should we see a map of
the Silver City development site, with directions to the open mine shaft where miners
dumped toxic materials and Vincent Esparza dumped Lazaro Huerta' s body. "Weird.
'Silver City,'" she says, reading the note's contents. "Someone left us a treasure map."
Of course, this map is altogether different from the map on O'Brien's living room wall,
prioritizing spacial relationships over social ones, but nonetheless it will plant a seed in
the alternative media, seizing on Paine's earlier suggestion of a "trickle up" effect in
which alternative media sources do the legwork on scandalous stories before the reports
filter into mainstream outlets. Accordingly, O'Brien's final movement on the case is not
an act not of deferral of action, but of deference to another organization that might
succeed where his collecting efforts failed.
Regardless of O'Brien' s ultimate failure to expose the profound implications of
Lazaro Huerta's death and resurrection, he does apprehend the truth that underlies the
Lake Arapahoe event: he is precise in his dietrologia. In this way, he is a student of
what Don DeLillo calls the "lyrically true," that which is "unprovably true, remotely and
inadmissibly true but not completely unhistorical, not without some nuance of authentic
inner narrative" (Underworld 172). Lyrical truth, as we will see, expresses conviction in
the absence of substantial evidence. It is the mechanism that allows a conspiratorial-
minded person to "know" that the moon landing was a hoax designed to embarrass the
Soviets or that Hitler escaped Berlin to live the remainder of his life in peaceful
anonymity in South America. Of course, these examples illustrate the Hofstadter-like
qualities of conspiracy theory that lyrical truth can help create and sustain, but we can
also imagine the usefulness of lyrical truth to our own exercises in conspiracy (or critical)
theory when we encounter an impasse in information. In Silver City, lyrical truth bridges
the information gaps that Danny O'Brien and Mitch Paine strive to overcome. The
audience, having observed the horseback conversation between Pilager and Benteen, can
verify the empirical truth of O'Brien' s conspiratorial narrative, but for O'Brien and his
associates at Paine' s online news site, that truth remains only lyrical, detached from any
viable concrete political application. After all, lyrical truth would bear little resistance to
the scrutiny it would encounter if it were to be the primary method of substantiating a
conspiracy theory because it relies on conviction instead of demonstrable evidence.
Lyrical truth operates as a mode of production. Like Koolhaas's assessment of the
Paranoid-Critical Method, the epistemology of lyrical truth demands that one begin with
a general sense of the world and then interpret the world according to the paradigms of
the preconceived lyrical truth. As we have seen, Koolhaas's PCM produces a set of
knowledge in accordance with one's initial thesis, and this is no less true for lyrical truth.
One key difference between the two methodologies, however, is that lyrical truth has no
pretenses about verifiability. While the PCM contorts data to substantiate the paranoiac's
thesis, a lyrical truth confirms the thesis more loosely. To return to the example set on
Danny O'Brien's living room wall, lyrical truth does not connect the conspiratorial dots
with indisputable evidence, but rather it juxtaposes those dots in a way that feels right.
Lyrical truth, then, is a matter of faith.
The declaration of faith that marks lyrical truth is a crucial step toward transferring
conspiracy theory from a consumption-oriented enterprise to a proactively productive
one. This shift toward a positive critique that forges a productive synthesis of knowledge
and action is a radical departure from the complacent consumption of information that
often leads to the paralysis of interpretation. Indeed, Jean Baudrillard, in The M~irror of
Production, argues that "productivist discourse" must be appropriated from the discourse
of the political economy and put to work "in the name of an authentic and radical
productivity" (17). This "radical productivity" can be set in motion by what he calls the
"the mirror of production," a process which, like Lacan's mirror stage, brings the
individual to self-consciousness through his recognition of himself as embodying the
transformative power of the "productivist discourse" (Baudrillard 19-20).
The productive power of lyrical truth lies in its ability to bridge gaps in
information. Danny O'Brien's commitment to lyrical truth allows him to circumvent his
inability to observe the horseback exchange between Pilager and Benteen, thereby
facilitating his power to feel the truth in the absence of the means to prove it. O'Brien
may not have arrived at the consciousness of his own transformative power to produce,
but nevertheless he employs that productive capacity toward assembling the yield of his
information collection in a meaningful--and perhaps politically potent--formation.
Though the very lyrical, and thus necessarily unprovable, nature of his collection
undermines its menace as a conspiracy theory, O'Brien's gathering of information
succeeds in the standards of the collector. Benjamin concludes his study of collecting,
ruminating that "perhaps the most deeply hidden motive of the person who collects can
be described this way: he takes up the struggle against dispersion. Right from the start,
the great collector is struck by the confusion, by the scatter, in which the things of the
world are found" (211). Moving, as we have seen, to tie the collector to the allegorist,
Benj amin continues to explain that the allegorist "has given up the attempt to elucidate
things through research into their properties and relations. He dislodges things from their
context and, from the outset, relies on his profundity to illuminate their meaning" (211).
It is precisely the profundity of lyrical truth that O'Brien relies on to animate his study in
dietrologia, and in using this methodology, O'Brien becomes an allegorist just as much
as a collector.
Though Danny O'Brien's collecting efforts are stunted by an unfortunate
information gap, we need not conclude that all conspiratorial collecting efforts
necessarily end in a similar negotiation with the paralysis of interpretation. O'Brien' s
inability to mine evidence of a malfeasant relationship between Pilager and Benteen
damns to failure his efforts as a conspiratorial-minded politico. However, his successes
in "the struggle against dispersion" demonstrate the benefits of his methodology of lyrical
truth: in the absence of concrete evidence, we may still have faith in our convictions.
Indeed, lyrical truth is a critical bridging mechanism that mediates the stages of
production for a conspiracy theory: it marks the passage from an inchoate suspicion to a
fully developed, politically potent indictment of conspiracy. Silver City concludes in this
intermediate stage, leaving its audience with only the hope that Mitch Paine's media
outlet will complete the development of O'Brien' s conspiratorial collection.
As a brief exercise in contrast, we can look to Fernando Meirelles's The Constant
Gardener (2005) for its illustration of the production of a conspiracy theory. The story
begins with the deaths of two conspiracy theorists, Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz) and
Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kounde), who we later learn were investigating a pharmaceutical
company for testing its tuberculosis drugs on poor and sick Africans. From this point
forward we observe the awakening of Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), Tessa' s husband.
Justin, a British diplomat assigned to Kenya, enters the film as a figure of the apathetic.
He feels powerless to remedy the great suffering, poverty, and sickness that surround
him, unaware of his wife's secret plans to expose the KDH pharmaceutical
conglomerate' s exploitation of unsuspecting test subj ects. But after Tessa' s murder, the
seed of conspiratorial suspicion takes root in Justin's mind. Slowly he perceives a lyrical
truth explaining her death, and he follows that lyrical truth to its concrete incarnation as a
conspiracy theory as he tracks down the leads Tessa left behind. Ultimately he is killed
for asking the same questions his wife did, but not before he has registered enough
evidence to indict, even after his death, KDH' s two conspiracies: to exploit African test
subj ects and to cover-up by way of murder Tessa, Arnold, and, indeed, Justin himself.
The Constant Gardener displays the three steps of producing a viable conspiracy
theory--inchoate suspicion, lyrical truth, and concrete conspiracy theory--whereas Silver
City leaves that process incomplete.
However, regardless of the incompleteness of Danny O'Brien' s conspiracy theory,
his work demonstrates the necessity of lyrical truth in the collector's "struggle against
dispersion." And the methodology of lyrical truth marks a crucial intersection of
consumption and production. In conspiracy theory, it is the hinge that joins the process
of collecting to the process of assembling the collected materials into a meaningful
formation. While the conspiracy theory may enter the market as a commodity for
consumption, as Birchall has suggested, this lyrical truth also endows it with a productive
capacity that holds the promise of breaking the conspiracy theorist' s flirtation with the
paralysis of interpretation.
CONCLUSION: TOWARD A POSITIVE CRITIQUE IN (CONSPIRACY) THEORY
I have made the focus of this paper the act and behavior of conspiracy theorizing,
but the act of conspiring itself merits some attention here, especially in the context of
cultural production and consumption and in the discourse of positive and negative
critiques. Whereas conspiracy theorizing is an act of production toward its own
consumption as a commodity, the act of conspiring is productive in that it often has
significant consequences. The difference between the two is fundamentally the
difference between positive and negative critique: conspiring is an act of engagement, of
commitment; conspiracy theorizing is an act of deferral, of avoiding the risk--and
potential gains--associated with forwarding and executing an agenda by stagnating
within the paralysis of interpretation. In other words, conspiring is prescriptive, and
conspiracy theorizing is descriptive, largely unwilling to engage the field it exposes in a
We can take as an example of this productivity the conspiring of even so detestable
a figure as Joe McCarthy. McCarthy's conspiracy--and, indeed, it was his conspiracy
against the Left instead of a Communist conspiracy against the U.S. government--very
effectively demonized sympathy for Communism. By discouraging people from
considering the socialist paradigm to be a viable, civilized system, McCarthyism helped
strengthen the position of capitalism in the post-war decades. Though the aims of
McCarthy's conspiracy are irredeemably wicked and despicable, we cannot deny that his
conspiring was productive--perhaps more productive than any of the many justifiably
negative critiques of his actions. Of course, I'm not proposing that Leftists should hold
secret caucuses to plan the persecution of anyone who opposes progressive platforms, but
rather I think we can learn from the productive stance of someone like McCarthy, who
can remind us of the need to abandon the practice of (often reactive) negative critique.
Indeed, the conspiratorial necessity of collective action is precisely the lesson Jameson
draws from his reading of The Parallax View: "the conspiracy wins [...] not because it
has some special form of 'power' that the victims lack, but simply because it is collective
and the victims, taken one by one in their isolation, are not" (TGA 66).
Very generally, the practice of conspiracy theorizing limits itself to isolated,
passive descriptions of conspiracy, and it endorses a dichotomy between
description/interpretation and action, between deferral and productivity. What's worse is
that conspiratorial literature very often indicates that such passive descriptions, the mere
possession of secret knowledge about a conspiracy, will somehow, vaguely, bring that
conspiracy to an end without any accompanying action. An example of this kind of
knowledge-as-power thematic comes from Richard Donner' s film Conspiracy Theory.
Here, Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson) possesses knowledge of Dr. Jonas's (Patrick Stewart)
secret government-funded mind control program, and Jerry's knowledge provokes such
an excessive response from Jonas that Jonas's diabolical program collapses under the
scrutiny of other government agencies. Indeed, the logic of Conspiracy Theory relies on
the inferred link between passive knowledge and active exposure, which Eve Sedgwick
illuminates: "whatever account it may give of its own motivation, paranoia is
characterized by placing, in practice, and extraordinary stress on the efficacy of
knowledge per se--knowledge in the form of exposure" (138).
Of course, I would not presume to denigrate knowledge as an insignificant
application of power, but the ultimate message of Conspiracy Theory--that the
possession of knowledge is enough to bring about change--cultivates and justifies
complacency. Such a deferral of action confines most examples of conspiracy theorizing
to a state of non-productivity while the obj ects of the investigations, the conspirators
themselves, more significantly affect the world around them.
What I am suggesting here is that the practice of conspiracy theorizing--and this
applies to the methodologies of critical theory, too, as it represents a certain distinct
enterprise in dietrologia --has great potential benefits to social progress. However,
conspiracy theorizing will remain an ineffectual negative critique until it prescribes
collective action. Perhaps one of the best recent examples of an appropriate relationship
between description and action comes from Sam Green's documentary The Weather
Underground (2003). Green details the Weathermen's beginnings, noting that they were
deeply rooted in the social activism of the late 1960s--many were part of the leadership
of the Students for a Democratic Society, and all wanted to call attention to the racism
latent in U.S. policies concerning the Vietnam War--before they militarized and went
underground to continue their bombing campaign to raise awareness of social injustice.
The Weathermen proj ect had its share of flaws, which Green' s documentary
dutifully uncovers. However, what is also highlighted in the film, but often left
unexamined in both conservative and liberal critiques of the Weathermen, was the
members' courage to take risks in making a positive critique. Instead of languishing
under the critical methodology of descripti on/interpretation as most conspiracy theorizing
does, the Weathermen applied their knowledge to more than mere description, thereby
breaking out of the paralysis of interpretation. What is most radical about the
Weathermen proj ect is not that it imposed violence on symbols of imperialism and
racism, but that it synthesized its knowledge with an action that had the potential to bring
about change. This synthesis of knowledge and action is greatly lacking on the Left, and
it is the necessary next step for conspiracy theory if conspiracy theorizing will ever pose
a significant challenge to the conspiracy that is contemporary life itself.
SIn Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, Slavoj 2iiek writes that, especially on the Left,
"the moment one shows the slightest inclination to engage in political proj ects that aim
seriously to challenge the existing order, the answer is immediately: 'Benevolent as it is,
this will necessarily end in a new Gulag!'" (3-4). Later, he says that the effect of this
deferral of action is that academics--and particularly those engaged in cultural studies--
"shift from an engagement with real working-class culture to academic radical chic"
(Ziiek 226). To the negative critique inherent in this mode of critical theory, Ziiek
proposes a return to the Leninist model: "the Leninist stance was to take a leap, throwing
oneself into the paradox of the situation, seizing the opportunity and intervening, even if
the situation was 'premature'" (114).
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Wesley Beal received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Hendrix College
in 2004. This thesis is the culmination of his work toward the Master of Arts degree that
he received in 2006. His plans for doctoral work are to move away from studies of
conspiracy toward a dissertation that examines figures of the urban and rural in American
literature of the twentieth century in an effort to bring Raymond Williams's 7he Country
and the City across the Atlantic.